Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger
By Lee Smith
Algonquin Books; 352 pp.
First things first: Lee Smith's latest is not a Jane Austen book. Don't let the title Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger fool you. There isn't an ounce of Pride and Prejudice in this collection of harrowing tales on being a mother, daughter, lover, wife and woman.
Smith has written nine previous novels as well as three collections of stories; her most recent novel, The Last Girls, was a New York Times best-seller as well as co-winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. She's also been busy in the theater: Good Ol' Girls, a musical based on work by Smith and fellow fiction writer Jill McCorkle, is enjoying an off-Broadway run this spring in New York.
Excelling at both of her chosen forms, Smith has nothing to prove to her audience. She can take us across the dusty furrows that lead to Agate Hill, down the sludge of the Mississippi River on a raft or simply drop us in where a character sits entombed in an ordinary world, precisely at the moment he or she gasps for air.
Coming 13 years after her last short story collection, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger contains 14 stories in all—seven new ones and seven of her previously published favorites. The new stories, while emblematic of Smith's astonishing craft as a writer, are akin to taking a bite into a lemon chess pie; sour and sweet commingle—sometimes the sweet lingers, at other times it's the bitter of a lemon rind that's most prevalent.
These are relatable stories—at times maybe too relatable. We've met these women at one time or another, and that can make us cringe. The Indy recently had a chance to talk to Lee Smith about her work before she went to Virginia for a writing residency.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The character Mrs. Darcy—and the ensuing title, may throw some people off. This isn't Jane Austen, as we quickly realize. Did you consciously tap into that name?
LEE SMITH: No—and I'm really upset about this! My publisher and I wrangled and wrangled over what the title should be. Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger was their choice. It is the title of my favorite older story in the collection. But I had no idea that there is a whole Jane Austen spin-off book craze going on until I went to speak to the American Library Association meeting in Boston, and people kept running up to me and saying, "Oh, I can't wait to go read your book! I just love Jane Austen!" Finally I said to the third person who did this, "Well, I like Jane Austen, too, but why are you telling me this?" So I found out. And I think it's a huge mistake. The title I wanted was actually Stevie and Mama, but the publisher said that anybody who reads The New Yorker would never buy a book named Stevie and Mama—to which my husband [Indy contributor Hal Crowther] said, "Well, how about Stephen and Mother?" House Tour would have been a good title, too. Oh well, I guess we're stuck with Mrs. Darcy now. And I do love the cover—it's beautiful, isn't it?
How has your work changed in 42 years of writing?
One of the biggest changes is that at my age now, I am more interested in the long haul than the transcendent moment, that epiphany which is the province of the lyric poet and the young writer. My husband and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary this summer. So my new stories, such as "House Tour" and "Stevie and Mama" (my favorite!), are really about long marriages, how they change over time, the relationship of past to present, the accommodations we all make in the name of love. I could never have written these stories earlier.
What are the specific challenges you face as a regional (i.e., Southern) writer?
I have always felt that in terms of writing, the difference never was between the South and the North, anyway, but between an essentially urban culture and an essentially rural culture ... Except for the accent, there is not much difference between Elizabeth Strout's collection of stories set in a rural Maine village (Olive Kitteridge) and Wendell Berry's Port Royal, Kentucky or Alice Munro's rural Canada. It is a mind-set, a certain way of seeing the world.
In all your stories, place and location are very important—you sketch vivid and accurate descriptions, almost like you're mapping character to geography. Why?
Personally, I'm so tied to place that I cannot even imagine a story without drawing a map of it first. For a novel, the walls of my office are literally covered with maps before I can start—real road maps; fictional maps I've made up of my characters' specific towns and neighborhoods; even maps of the interiors of my characters' houses—down to where the furniture is. I have to create the physical world before I can populate it with my characters. I have to make a whole world for them to walk around in. It's about the only thing I can control. Once I let them go, all hell is liable to break loose!
But seriously, place is extraordinarily important to most Southern writers, much more so than to writers in other parts of the country—this has been true historically, and it is true right now. You never hear about a conference dedicated to Northern literature, for instance, or Midwestern literature. Why is this? What's going on? Years ago, I made up my own definition of regional literature. OK, here it is: "Regional literature is literature in which action and characters cannot be moved geographically without major loss or distortion."
These criteria have been more true in the South than any other region. This will change, of course, as the South changes—and it's changing fast. Right now, in our own age of ever-increasing communication and standardization, a mall in Fuquay-Varina, say, has got exactly the same stores as a mall in Akron, Ohio. Everybody watches the same thing on TV.
Have you been influenced by living in Maine (where Smith and her husband have a summer house)? Specifically, have you found that Appalachian women and Maine women have similar stories?
It's so interesting to me that you would ask this question, because the similarities are striking—I found this to be so when I was running a writing workshop for women in Alaska, too. The rural areas of Maine and Alaska are survival cultures, with close-knit families and communities often insufficient to deal with poverty, isolation and lack of health care and social services. The women are strong, resourceful and self-sufficient—much like the women I knew, growing up in Appalachia. There's a real resonance for me. The possibility of death on the waters of coastal Maine is quite present, much like the possibility of death in the Appalachian coal mines; it's difficult and dangerous to make a living. A certain fatalism exists in both places. The landscape is beautiful and dramatic, striking. But Maine is harder: The weather is worse, so many jobs are seasonal. You have to be really tough to live there year-round.
I'm mulling over these stories and this time period you've spanned as a writer—and I could be wrong, but with your new stories the edges seem a little harder, a little less relenting than your earlier works. When you began writing in the late '60s, it was the time of the women's movements, and much was expected to change. It seems, though, that in the past 42 years, it hasn't become any easier to be a woman. What are your thoughts?
I consider myself a realist; I have always tried to tell the truth as I saw it. Paradoxically, I guess, I have found it easier to do this in fiction than in nonfiction. You can make things up and switch facts around to make your points. But a lot of times, the truth is not pretty—it's hard to bear—I guess that's where the humor comes in. We have to have something to lighten the load a little bit, don't we?
Several people have remarked to me recently that my newer work is "darker"—perhaps so. I am alarmed by what is happening all over the world right now in terms of human rights and particularly women's rights. Violence against women, violence in general, continued war. Any writer's worldview will be reflected in her fiction, if it's honest fiction, true fiction—and to me, that term "true fiction" is not an oxymoron.
Lee Smith appears at Quail Ridge Books at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 24; the Regulator Bookshop Wednesday, March 31 at 7 p.m.; and at McIntyre's Fine Books Saturday, April 3 at 11 a.m.